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Underground Railroad in McLean County

Processed by: , March 2013


  1. Historical Sketch
  2. Box and Folder Inventory
Historical Sketch

In the decades before the Civil War an untold number of fugitive slaves journeyed northward to freedom on the Underground Railroad, making the story of this movement one of the more dramatic chapters in American history.

While there are many myths and stories concerning the Underground Railroad, it was very real in McLean County. Mount Hope, a vanished town in southwest McLean County, was settled by Congregationalists from Rhode Island and Massachusetts. "They were, with scarcely an exception, rank Abolitionists," noted the 1879 history of McLean County. "Indeed, if tradition is to be relied on, a regular station of the underground railroad, with agent and conductor, existed in the neighborhood."

Late in his life, former Mount Hope resident Albert Robinson Greene recounted that in January 1848 his father Elisha escorted two escaped slaves to the Tazewell County community of Tremont.

In September 1853, John Anderson, a Missouri field hand around 22 years old, passed through Bloomington on his six-week journey to Canada. The Toronto Weekly Globe published a lengthy account of Anderson's escape in 1861, making it the only known narrative of a runaway slave coming through McLean County.

According to Anderson, it took him about two weeks to reach the Mississippi River, and though Illinois was a free state, "from the attempts made to capture him . . . he was convinced that he was almost in as much danger there as he had been in Missouri." Once in Bloomington "he obtained some provisions" (though this account doesn't say how or from whom) and then "availed himself of the railway track for a short distance north." Once out of Bloomington, he took a circuitous route to Chicago before making passage to Windsor, Ontario.

What Anderson doesn't say is that he had been accused of killing a slave owner-turned-slave tracker in Missouri. In a case that drew international attention, Canadian courts first found Anderson guilty of murder and liable for extradition. The appeal, however, was in his favor and he continued to live as a free man north of the border.

Perhaps the best account of Underground Railroad activity in McLean County comes from an 1899 history written by Erastus Mahan, whose father William Mahan was part of a family of anti-slavery activists who settled in Pleasant Hill, a community southeast of Lexington.

In the summer of 1854, Erastus Mahan recalled a runaway husband and wife from Missouri who found themselves in Lexington. They were mixed race (Mahan used the term "mulatto") and "were fairly well dressed and attracted no unusual attention." Mahan brought them to S.S. Wright's home outside of Lexington, and after a week or so, led them to a man named Richardson, who lived nine miles south of Pontiac. From there the fugitive slave couple traveled to Chicago and then Canada.

During the Civil War, the local Underground Railroad was no longer "underground." In March 1862, The Pantagraph excoriated a "miserable, low-lived" slave catcher from Missouri who appeared in Bloomington to track down a "little mulatto boy" around 12 years old. "To the 'Southern gent' we would say, the sooner you make tracks from Bloomington the better," The Pantagraph warned.

Below is a collection of vertical files from the McLean County Museum of History Archives.  

Box and Folder Inventory

Also available as downloadable PDF.

    Underground Railroad-Newspaper Articles etc.
    1.1 "Anti-Slavery lecture," August 17, 1858.
    1.2 "Kidnapper In Town," March 24, 1862.
    1.3 "Slavery Times," September 3, 1895
    1.4 "Escaping Negroes Hidden in Cave Near Lexington by Abolitionists," March 23, 1929
    1.5 "Old Cellar Hid Slaves," February 21, 1948
    1.6 "The Underground Railroad: A story of courage and Abolitionism in Central Illinois," December 30, 1990
    1.7 "Railroad moved people north to freedom" ("Back Then" column), July 2, 2000.
    1.8 "Historian bringing Underground Railroad to Pontiac," November 29, 2000 (Note: Underground Railroad quilts have been thoroughly debunked--this article is an example of the mythmaking and well- intentioned false history on this movement)
    1.9 "Colony played anti-slavery role," February 24, 2002
    1.10 "History's Tangled Threads," New York Times, February 2, 2007 (essay warning about mythologizing the Underground Railroad)
    1.11 "Underground Railroad myths obscure history of movement" ("Page from Our Past" column), July 25, 2009
    1.12 "Slave Stampede," several articles from the State Register (Springfield) and Illinois State Journal (Springfield) regarding fugitive slaves heading from Springfield to Bloomington, from undated Lincoln Home National Historic Site newsletter (probably 2008)
    1.13 "Friends of Liberty on the Mackinaw," by Erastus Mahan in Transactions of the McLean County Historical Society, vol. 1, 1899, pp. 396-403. (2 copies)
    1.14 "Illinois and the Underground Railroad to Canada," in Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, vol. 23 1917, pp. 76-98
    1.15 The Underground Railroad in Illinois special issue, in Historic Illinois, vol. 22, April 2000
    1.16 "Lincoln's Springfield: Then Underground Railroad" parts 1 and 2, by Richard E. Hart in For the People: A Newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Spring 2006 and Summer 2006.
    1.17 "Lexington's 'Other' Railroad," excerpt from Lexington Illinois 150 Years (2007), pp. 12- 13
    1.18 Typed notes, author and date unknown, 1 p
    1.19 Photograph of a "token," from a postcard
    1.20 Photocopies of Jack Muirhead notes, mostly relating to Mahan and Lexington, 9 pgs
    1.21 "The Anti-Slavery Movement," section in The History of Livingston County (1878; reprint 1982). Reference to a "colored barber from Bloomington."
    1.22 "Network to Freedom," handout, 1 sheet, National Park Service, ca. 2009.
    1.23 Email from Brent Wielt to Bill Kemp, July 31, 2009, concerning letter at the Macon Co. Conservation District
    Anderson, John-- Fugitive Slave Narrative
    1.1 "Slave Testimony, Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies," edited by John W. Blassingame, excerpt "John Anderson," pg 353-358 (John Anderson traveled to Bloomington from Missouri)
    1.2 "Release of Anderson, The Fugitive Slave," from the Illustrated London News, 2009
    Gray, V-- Underground Railway
    1.1 Memo from Glenn Dodds, undated
    1.2 Letter to the Bloomington Chamber of Commerce from Jay Jones, undated
    1.3 Letter to Mr. Jay Jone from Vern Gray (Curator), Feb. 24, 1967, explaining history of Underground Railroad through McLean County, also the Duncan Manor (2 copies)
    Greene, Albert Robinson
    1.1 "A Little McLean County History" by Albert Robinson Greene--A Native Son, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society v. 8, n. 3, October 1915, 459-465, (relates story of Underground Railroad in Mt. Hope, Illinois)
    Mahan, W. R. Refuge for Fleeing Slaves
    1.1 "Refuge for Fleeing Slaves," copied from the Cooksville Enterprise, Dec. 22, 1905, pg. 1, col. 5, (2 copies) (relates the story of W.R. Mahan and his Pleasant Hill, Illinois home)
    McColm, John
    1.1 "John McColm Last Survivor of Underground Railway, Dies," Pantagraph, May 9, 1913, p. 16